Sustainable funerals: Part 1 – with Ethical.net

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Posted Apr 30 2021 by Sarah Young of Ethical.net
Sustainable funerals

With green funeral options on the rise, our friends at Ethical.net explore what to consider when it comes to sustainable funerals, focusing on more sustainable cremation options in this first instalment.


None of us like to think about what will happen after we or our loved ones die. But many of us are trying to live a green and eco-friendly life – and a sustainable life should end with a sustainable funeral.

All too often, funerals become costly affairs – not only in financial terms but also environmental ones. Planning a sustainable funeral means rejecting environmentally damaging practices and finding more ethical and responsible options.

Fortunately, as more and more people wake up to the damage we are doing to others and to the planet, green funeral options are on the rise. It is now easier than ever to make the right choices for arrangements around death. In this article, we will explore the range of options available for sustainable funerals – from what happens with the body, to wakes and house clearances. It may not be a pleasant topic, but it is something that will become relevant to us all.

Whether you are considering what to do after the death of a loved one, or thinking about your own sustainable funeral, read on to find out more.

What is a sustainable funeral?

We all like to imagine that we have a positive impact during our time on earth. After death, we don’t want our corporeal form to leave a damaging legacy – but, many current practices surrounding both burial and cremation mean people often do leave a negative legacy of environmental pollution behind them for future generations. This is the last thing we should wish for anyone.

A sustainable funeral is one that rejects such harmful practices, and instead adopts alternatives. They employ less damaging practices, allowing individuals to leave a legacy of ongoing life, rather than contributing to environmental degradation.

Sustainable funerals do not:

  • Release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
  • Allow poisonous substances to enter our ecosystems and pollute the environment.

Instead, they allow a human body to become part of the Earth’s natural systems, allowing death to bring new life, letting us continue to contribute to making our world better, even after death.

Burial or cremation?

In the UK, there are generally only two options of what happens to our bodies: cremation, or burial. This choice will often hinge on personal preference, sometimes with religious beliefs taken into account.

Around 78% of funerals in the UK are currently cremations. There are a number of reasons for this, but it often comes down to cremation being the cheaper option: average UK cremation costs are £683, while a burial costs, on average, £1,645.

The problems with cremation

But there is a growing awareness that cremation (as currently carried out) is not a sustainable option:

Energy use and emissions

A huge amount of energy is required to cremate a human body: temperatures of 760-1150 degrees Celsius for 75 minutes. This generally uses around 285 kWh of gas, and 15 kWh of electricity –  roughly equivalent to the energy usage of a single person in a domestic setting over a whole month.

An alternative, burning fossil fuels, results in high emissions of greenhouse gases. Globally, cremation emits over 6.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, accounting for around 0.02 percent of world carbon dioxide emissions.

In addition, crematorium buildings can also consume a lot of energy since they are heated and lit – not always sustainably – for the comfort of mourners and guests. Due to their emissions, crematoria are also often separate from areas of human habitation, which may increase associated carbon costs through transportation to the location. Additionally, lands surrounding crematoria may not always be managed sustainably.

Other harmful pollutants

Another global problem with cremation is mercury emissions: when mercury from dental amalgam is incinerated, it is emitted into the air through the incinerator stack. This mercury may then be inhaled, or precipitate into waterways, accumulating in the aquatic food chain and even potentially ending up on our plates.

However, since signing the Oslo-Paris (OSPAR) agreement, the UK government halved crematoria’s mercury emissions by 2012. By 2020, all UK crematoria (there are roughly 240) should emit no mercury. Nevertheless, though mercury pollution from cremation here should no longer be an issue, though it remains a problem elsewhere in the world.

Other harmful substances can also still enter the environment through cremation. For example, chipboard coffins are often bonded with a resin derived from formaldehyde – itself used in traditional embalming practices – causing the substance to enter the atmosphere when burnt. Polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (PCDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs), known carcinogens, are also emitted from crematoria. A study by the Cremation Association of North America has found that filtering crematorium fumes has little effect on the toxins released.

Furthermore, the ashes of cremated remains can contain all sorts of other potentially harmful substances. Calcified compounds within cremated remains, for example, can contain metals such as lead, boron, cadmium, chromium, lithium, magnesium, cobalt, copper, tin, manganese, nickel, and strontium. When concentrated in a certain location (say, in soil), these metals have the potential to harm the environment.

It is clear that cremation is not a sustainable option. But is burial any better?

A churchyard with gravestones: sustainable funerals

Credit: Martin Vysoudil on Unsplash

The problems with traditional graveyard burial

Though traditional cemetery burial has a lower carbon cost than cremation, there are still a number of environmental issues around it. Traditional embalming chemicals such as formaldehyde, and contaminants from many coffins, also enter the environment when bodies are buried. Over time, these can leach through the ground and enter water sources. When bodies are concentrated in cemeteries or graveyards, these negative environmental impacts can be compounded.

There are also ethical concerns over using land for burial when it could better be used for other purposes. Plus, increased use of materials and resources for coffins and the other paraphernalia associated with traditional burial is problematic too.

Neither cremation nor traditional cemetery burial offers a sustainable solution. Fortunately, however, there are a number of more sustainable alternatives to consider.

More sustainable cremation

Though burial is generally a greener and more ethical option, many people instinctively dislike the idea of their bodies ending up beneath the ground, and may still prefer cremation.

Here are some suggestions to help reduce the impact of a cremation, rather than opting for any kind of burial:

Resomation

Resomation, also known as aquamation or water cremation, dissolves the body in a water lye solution, through a process of alkaline hydrolysis. Though legal in many areas of the US, it is yet to be legalised in the UK. However, its introduction here could be a step nearer following extensive testing.

Resomation works by immersing the body in a gentle solution of 95% water and 5% alkaline. Heated to 160 degrees Centigrade in a pressurised environment (to prevent boiling), after around four hours, all that’s left is ash from the bones’ calcium phosphate, and a bio-fluid to be disposed of. The liquid contains no traces of DNA.

According to Sustain, this alternative to cremation can cut a funeral’s greenhouse gas emissions by around 35%, making it an option for sustainable funerals in future.

Cryomation

Cryomation is a fully automated process which involves immersing a body in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196 degrees Celsius. The body becomes brittle and breaks up into small particles which are freeze dried and placed into a biodegradable container for burial. They will take up far less space than a traditional burial, and break down to nothing within a year, returning the body’s organic material to nature.

Unlike cremation, the cryomation process is powered by sustainably produced electricity, with no fossil fuel usage. This leads to a significant CO₂ reduction, and eliminates the toxic effluents caused by traditional burial.

In June 2019, Cryomation were successful in their grant application to Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency, to support the building of the world’s first fully-automated Cryomation Unit. The project commenced in September 2019, with the world’s first operational Cryomation facility due to be tested and delivered in late spring 2021.

Recomposition / natural organic reduction

This year, Washington state became the first of the United States to legalise another new alternative to cremation: recomposition, or, in plainer terms, human composting. This is akin to a natural burial (more on which below), but bodies are turned to soil mulch through natural and efficient composting processes, and can then be either used, or donated. The process is an abridgement of natural burial’s effects: over around 30 days, in a closed container, optimal conditions for decomposition convert a human body into about a cubic yard of soil.

Starting in Washington in 2020, could this option – perhaps the ideal for cities, where space for natural burial is limited – soon be offered in the UK as well?

Grief to reefs

Cremation itself may not be the most sustainable way to go. But you can at least make sure that remains are turned into something useful. One option is to transform cremated remains into artificial coral reefs, or ‘reef balls’, which can help to sustain and support marine life. Eternal Reefs allows you to do just that. Coral reefs are under tremendous threat globally, due to pollution and warming oceans, but this could be one way to help support their survival, even in death.

Compressing ashes into diamonds

A loved-one’s ashes can be compressed to make diamonds. Of course, compressing the carbon from human remains takes energy – yet making a diamond in this way is far, far more eco-friendly and ethical than digging one up from the ground; these are never blood diamonds.

Creating music from the ashes

While not the greenest option available, Andvinyly gives the option of having your ashes, or those of your loved one, pressed into a record – so the music plays on. Vinyl is, of course, a plastic, with all that entails. But this is one piece of plastic (I hope) will not be thrown away.

Biodegradable urns

If you do decide on cremation, and don’t opt to do something so unconventional with the ashes, there are other options. Burying them in a biodegradable urn is one way to make the process a little more sustainable. Bios Urn, for example, offers a biodegradable urn containing a tree seed of your choice; once buried, the whole lot will break down, feeding the growing tree. 100%-biodegradable urns made from vegetable gelatine are also available for ashes deposited at sea.

Part 2 coming soon, covering sustainable burial and coffin options. Find the original article by Elizabeth Waddington here on the Ethical.net blog. Main image by Noah Silliman on Unsplash. Learn more about green funerals in our introduction.



Ethical.netAbout the author

Ethical.net is a collaborative platform for discovering and sharing ethical alternatives, whether purchasing from a social enterprise, thrift shopping, or learning how to fix your old phone instead of buying a new one. They aim to make ethical the new normal.